Photo: Melanie Foose
Spring and Citizen Science!
This past Monday was my favorite day of the year. It wasn’t a special holiday and there was no elaborate celebration, but it’s a day I wait for with high anticipation each and every Spring. Days
like this usually arrive in March when you finally feel spring in the air. You can smell it float on the warm breeze and you know that the growing season has arrived. This year, we had to wait patiently for Mother Nature to bring us springtime temperatures, and hopefully they're here to stay!
One of the best things about Spring is when amphibians and reptiles come out of hibernation. Salamanders, lizards, frogs, toads, snakes, and turtles emerge from their wintertime rest to bask, feed, and begin to prepare for another season. Now that they're here it won't be long before they start moving around.
Keep aware and watch for them crossing roads. You may find salamanders slithering across roads on rainy nights, frogs hopping in the misty air, and turtles moving to find food, mates and suitable nesting sites.
If you do find any amphibian or reptile hanging around, snap a photo and share your observations with other wildlife enthusiasts by entering it into Michigan’s Herp Atlas!
The Herp Atlas is a great way to document your observations of reptiles and amphibians and the information can be used by scientists and citizen scientists alike to track any number of variables. Location information documents the range of a given species, dates of observation gives insight into the timeline of
emergence, critical for climate change modeling, and multiple photographs provide a look at identifying features of each species.
There is a need for data throughout the entire state, although some counties have far fewer observations than others. Its easy to sign up and enter your information, photographs, and map a location.
Give it a try!
Citizen Science is a worthy and honorable use of our time, skills, and the input of us all can really make a difference!
To sign up and begin entering your own observations into the Herp Atlas:http://www.miherpatlas.org/
Information on Michigan’s Reptiles and Amphibians – DNR:http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,4570,7-153-10370_12145_12201---,00.html
Michigan Society of Herpetologists – Michigan Reptiles and Amphibians Identification Guide: http://www.michherp.org/miherps.html
Citizen Science Alliance:http://www.citizensciencealliance.org/
Photo: Melanie Foose
Now that Spring is here, I have salamanders on my mind. The
pools around northern Oakland County are no longer covered in ice and most have filled with water from April rains and snow melt, and salamanders are out of hibernation.
These beautiful creatures are Michigan’s largest salamander, and one that we have right here in the headwaters region as well as most of the Lower Peninsula. They can even be found in a few spots in the Upper Peninsula.
Tigers vary greatly in their appearance. Some are black with yellowish tiger’s stripes – hence the name Tiger Salamander. Others have greenish-grey coloring with little to no markings. But what all Tigers have in common are their long tails and thick, long bodies, averaging 7 to 9 inches and up to a record 13 inches long!
Tiger salamanders, unlike some of our other native salamanders, can be found in a variety of habitats, living in woodlands, meadows, marshes, and lake edges. They can even be found in farmland and residential areas. But they all require smaller, fishless ponds necessary for mating and breeding. And, even though we have plenty of ponds in our area which might be beneficial for Tigers, habitat fragmentation due to development and roads, in addition to pollutants and toxins in the environment pose a real threat to these amphibians and they are quite vulnerable due to these impacts.
So, maybe the next warm night, take a walk in your favorite woodland area, run a flashlight through the leaf litter, flip over a few logs, and you just might find some having emerged from their deep burrows underground to feed on worms, insects, slugs, snails, and even other salamander larvae.
The Michigan DNR has a short write-up at: http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,4570,7-153-10370_12145_12201-61173--,00.html
Dr. James Harding has several books on Michigan’s Herpetiles:http://www.amazon.com/Michigan-Frogs-Toads-Salamanders-Reference/dp/1565250028/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1365992296&sr=8-1&keywords=james+harding+frogshttp://www.amazon.com/Amphibians-Reptiles-Great-Region-Environment/dp/0472066285/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1365992331&sr=1-1&keywords=james+harding+great+lakes
Michigan’s Widlife Facebook Page had a great write-up on Michigan’s Salamanders on April 11, 2013:https://www.facebook.com/MichigansWildlife
“Herping with Dylan” video - Spotted, Tiger and Small-Mouth Salamanders:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dffOcX4Y6TQ
Photo: Melanie Foose
There is a charming little songbird I enjoy watching through all
seasons. He is not an uncommon bird, and one that I’m sure most of you have observed, but one that so peculiar and so fascinating to watch.
The white-breasted nuthatch is a one of two nuthatches we have in Michigan, and the more common of the two at my backyard birdfeeder. He has a sharp colored steel gray or blue back, head and neck with a contrasting bright white face and underparts. He is a bird simply lovely in profile and with a unique pattern of feeding by slinking down the trunk of a tree head-first, and eating side-ways or upside-down. The name nuthatch is in reference to a behavior of feeding by smacking seeds or acorns against trees in order to release the meat inside. They also have a habit of storing food beneath the bark of trees or covering it with leaves or bits of moss to enjoy later.
Nuthatches have a varied diet consisting of the aforementioned seeds and acorns, as well as insects, spiders, and caterpillars. To attract them to your bird feeder, entice them with sunflower seeds,
peanuts, suet and peanut butter.
The white-breasted nuthatch is found in deciduous woods or wooded edges, as well as open areas with larger maple, hickory, basswood or oak trees. They are also found in residential areas. Conversely,
Michigan’s other nuthatch, the red-breasted nuthatch, prefers similar habitats but around coniferous woods. Of course, their habitats will overlap and I have observed both species at my feeders.
With nesting season at hand, you may wish to take a listen when you’re out of doors for the male’s song, a “wha-wha-wha”
, or their call, a loud “yank”
, and a softer “yank”
, when they’re searching for food. If his song is successful and he attracts a female, she will make a nest in the cavity of a tree from fur, bark and small clumps of dirt for 5-6 eggs, white in color with red-brown speckles. Even after nesting season, the two will stick together throughout the year and into the winter until the following Spring.
Cornell Lab of Ornithologyhttp://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/white-breasted_nuthatch/lifehistory
National Geographic http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birding/white-breasted-nuthatch/
For a truly pleasurable birding experience, visit Kensington Metropark where you can walk along the trails near the Nature Center feeding chickadees, tufted titmice, and even nuthatches directly from your hand!http://www.metroparks.com/parks/index_all.aspx?ID=6&r=0
Photo Credit: Melanie Foose
Most everyone knows about the bug catching capabilities of the exotic Venus Flytrap, but did you know that the only place in the world where Venus flytraps grow is in the United States along the Atlantic coast in North and South Carolina?
What’s even more exciting is that we have bug-eating plants right here in Michigan! Carnivorous plants grow throughout the world in a variety of habitats and elevations but what most of these ecosystems have in common are the low nutrient availability of the soils which is the reason behind the evolution of the plant in order to gather nutrients by other means - they now can get their nutrients from tasty insects buzzing around the swamps and thus are able to thrive in these areas.
In Michigan, we have three different genera of carnivorous plants: Sarracenia spp. or the Pitcher Plants, Drosera spp. or the Sundews, and Utricularia spp. or the Bladderworts. All three live in low nutrient, wet environments such as acidic sphagnum bogs or wet marly fens, and species of all three genera can be found in Oakland County.
The Pitcher Plants consume their prey when they are attracted to the modified leaves or tubes of the plant and fall down into the trap but are unable to escape due to the downward facing hairs on the inside of the pitchers. The tubes are filled with fluid containing digestive enzymes which slowly consume the insect, spider or even the occasional frog in a potent soup providing all the nutrients for the plant to flourish.
Sundews are associates of Pitcher Plants, often growing directly alongside each other, yet they have a completely different trapping mechanism. The leaves of the sundew have several hairs on them each with a drop of sticky “glutinous secretion” or natural glue at the tip. The unfortunate insect that decides to trespass upon these leaves will adhere to the hairs, unable to escape as the leaf slowly closes around the insect. The sundew’s hunting method is slow and methodical; yet extraordinarily effective. A study conducted in England in the late seventies counted insects caught in a bog and estimated over six million insects were trapped in a bog of only two acres! (Heslop-Harrison, 1978)
And, finally our Bladderworts are found in the wetter areas of the bog or fen, aquatic plants that have modified root systems with traps or “bladders” at their base which grab onto and ingest tiny aquatic life as it floats through the water.
All three plant types are not just fascinating to learn of, observe in the wild, and even grow in a container garden; but they also have a true aesthetic beauty and simply gorgeous flowers of red, pink or yellow.
Carnivorous plants are my personal favorite group of plants – is there anything cooler than a plant that eats bugs?!?
Check out this AMAZING BBC video of Venus Flytraps:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O7eQKSf0LmY
Another video to enjoy of a bug being caught by a Sundew:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CPzwPKLEwjU
I enjoy growing a variety of carnivorous plants as houseplants – both temperate and tropical. A great book describing the diversity and growing methods of carnivores is entitled “The Savage Garden
” by Peter D’Amato. http://www.californiacarnivores.com/thesavagegardenbypeterdamato.aspx
Charles Darwin was fascinated by the carnivorous plants and you can read his writings on this group of plants for free!
Free Kindle e-book
” by Charles Darwinhttp://www.amazon.com/Insectivorous-Plants ebook/dp/B0084782WO/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1352521063&sr=1-1&keywords=insectivorous+plants
International Carnivorous Plant Society (ICPS)http://www.carnivorousplants.org/
Botanical Society of America – Carnivorous and Insectivorous Plantshttp://www.botany.org/Carnivorous_Plants/http://www.sarracenia.com/faq/faq5538.htmlhttp://www.rook.org/earl/bwca/nature/aquatics/sarracenia.html
The above photo was taken at a phenomenal bog right here in Oakland County in Rose Township!
My Daughter, Mia. Photo Credit: Dustin Skavang
I have an obsession…
It started last summer when my children’s pre-school began a study of monarch caterpillars and their transformation to butterflies. After seeing my girls’ fascination with these beautiful insects, we decided to embark on an exploration of monarchs of our own.
So, last summer, around July, I planted three small milkweed plants hoping to attract these gorgeous creatures to my yard, and the results were immediate. Right away we began to see these bright orange bursts of life flitting around the yard and my garden. And they stuck around, feasting on nectar from my Joe Pye Weed and Wild Bergamot.
But were they laying eggs on my little milkweed plants?
And, it didn’t take long for it to happen and for us to find them. Monarch eggs are tiny, white and shaped like half of a football. They are typically laid on the underside of the leaf, usually a smaller, fresher leaf, and every one I found, I brought in and hatched out in my kitchen, which slowly turned into a monarch rearing station.
It takes just a few days for the egg to hatch into the tiniest caterpillar which often first eats its egg shell before moving onto the tasty milkweed leaf. My children and I would provide each yellow and black caterpillar a daily dose of fresh milkweed leaves and watch them change and grow through their five caterpillar stages or instars, until they would finally spin a cocoon. The monarch cocoon may be one of the loveliest sights on the planet with its jewel green coloring and gold speckling, as stunning as any precious stone.
Then finally, they would hatch and we would release it to the sky, watching it fly towards to the sun. Usually, I would let my girls release the butterflies but occasionally I would allow myself the same pleasure, and it is indeed a pleasure as I cannot think of a more satisfying and pure feeling of joy than the release of a butterfly you’ve raised from a tiny egg to the wilds of the world.
Not only did we raise over 80 monarchs last summer and countless more this summer, but we also have participated in the monarch tagging project with Monarch Watch which gathers data from citizen scientists and uses it to track the migration patterns of the monarch butterfly. Because not only is the monarch a remarkably beautiful insect, but it has a tremendous life cycle unlike many of our other native moths and butterflies with the last generation of the summer migrating to Mexico to overwinter before returning north again in the spring.
A truly remarkable journey, worthy of an obsession…
For additional resources, diagrams, and general information, see the following websites.
Monarch Annual Cycle showing the multiple generations:http://www.learner.org/jnorth/images/graphics/monarch/annual_cycle_wheel.gif
The Monarch Life Cycle from Egg to Butterfly:http://www.learner.org/jnorth/images/graphics/monarch/LifeCycleFlying_2.gif
Monarch Watch has several pages of excellent information:http://www.monarchwatch.org/
To raise and tag your own butterflies with Monarch Watch, visit:http://www.monarchwatch.org/tagmig/tag.htm
We are also a Certified Monarch Waystation –For more information and to certify your own site visit:http://www.monarchwatch.org/waystations/
One of my favorite books on bringing nature to your home and garden:Bringing Nature Home
by Douglas Tallamyhttp://bringingnaturehome.net/
Photo Credit: Melanie Foose
All it takes is a few seeds…
Conservation can take many forms. Land can be purchased or acquired by donation in order to prevent development – this is conservation in its most fundamental form.
Following the acquisition of land, the land can be stewarded by control of invasive plant species or implementation of practices such as controlled burns to maintain pre-settlement plant communities. Land can also be restored after impact by humans, such as the removal of structures or non-native soil materials or by plugging ditches, breaking tiles, and restoring pre-existing hydrology in the case of wetland restorations.Or
… conservation can occur in your very own backyard! You don’t need
to drive anywhere to experience nature, and have an impact on your world. Take native gardening for example and a plant like Wild Bergamot, also known as Bee Balm or the Latin term, Monarda fistulosa
. This is a plant that is oddly beautiful with spidery petals and stamens reaching toward the clouds and color variations with a range of pinkish purples to a nearly white lavender, and best of all is one of the most attractive plants to have in a pollinator garden.
This plant will bring a world of additional color and activity to your garden in the form of butterflies, bees, hummingbirds, and the fascinating little hummingbird moth! Planting native plants in a diverse manner will also bring you a diversity of wildlife – milkweed attracts monarchs to nectar on and to lay their eggs, cardinal flower is a deep, vibrant red and pollinated by hummingbirds, purple coneflower is abuzz with bees throughout its flowering period, and the leaves of cup plant provide cover for tree frogs while the seeds are a food source for songbirds. Anyone
can be a conservationist… just sprinkle a few seeds.
To learn more, please visit our website for additional information and for a slideshow of some of our most beautiful native plants. http://www.nohlc.org/native-plants.html
Photo Credit: Melanie Foose
There is a fascinating plant blooming in the deepest shade of the forest, and is unlike any other wildflower you may have seen. Indian Pipe is a pure, translucent white and is a ghostly presence in the forest – the very attributes which give it another common name – Ghost Flower.
Indian Pipe is a plant that completely lacks chlorophyll, but has developed a resourceful way to provide itself with nutrients. It has formed a parasitic relationship with a mycorrhizal fungus. The relationship is extraordinarily complex, mysterious, and one that is not yet fully understood. What is known is that the plant, which seems to favor rich woods of oak, beech or pine, taps into a mutually beneficial relationship that the fungus has with the trees, drawing nutrients from the fungus and sugars from the trees, in order to grow, flower and produce seeds.
The seeds of the plant are miniscule, able to be picked up by the slightest breeze and float through the air to land in another area of the forest, hopefully near a fungus it can pull food from in order to germinate.
Although it is parasitic in nature, Indian Pipe has a pleasant appeal. There is a single flower on each stem which points down towards the leaf-strewn ground until fertilized, and almost as if in reverence to the trees which provides life to the plant, it turns upwards following fertilization.
Indian Pipe is blooming now, so take a break from the heat to walk in the cool, heavy shade of a forest near you, and you may happen upon this curious little plant. It is a small plant, only growing 4 to 8 inches above the ground, so be sure to look close as you wander through the woods. And, remember that although this eerie plant is very beautiful, don’t pick it. Once picked, the plant shrivels up and turns a deep black losing all of its luster, and is perhaps the very reason for its other fitting name, the Corpse Plant.
Photo Credit: Melanie Foose
In Michigan we are so lucky to have several species of turtles, some more common such as the painted turtle or snapping turtle that most people have observed at one time or another. But we also have much more rare turtles such as the wood turtle, known to Northern Michigan or the state threatened spotted turtle.
However, my very favorite turtle is one that we have right here in the headwaters region – the Blanding’s Turtle. Due to population declines, the Blanding’s Turtle is a species of special concern in Michigan but are locally common in northwest Oakland County.
This is a larger turtle that is very easily identified by its highly domed carapace or top shell, its bright yellow throat the color of sunshine, and the notched upper jaw which gives the illusion of a smile. Of course when I stop to move a turtle to the other side of the road in the direction she’s heading, I am absolutely sure that it is a smile she flashes my way as she moves through the wetland. And, if it is a female, she will travel through wetlands, over roads and yards, up to a kilometer looking for the perfect spot to lay her eggs.
The Blanding’s Turtle can take 14 to 20 years to reach sexual maturity, so any reproducing adult in the population is crucial to the continuation of the species, especially given the general vulnerability of the population. And, the habitat of the Blanding’s Turtle is as vulnerable as the species, as I often observe them basking on downed trees in isolated pockets of wetland such as vernal pools or buttonbush swamps.
So, please, keep your eyes focused for this beautiful reptile this spring and summer, and if you spot one on the road, help her on her way, and don’t worry – not only will she not bite, but I bet she’ll flash you a heartfelt smile of appreciation!
Photo Credit: Melanie Foose
In southeast Michigan, even living within sixty miles of Detroit, so close to the most developed and urban area of our state, we still have vast and intact natural systems that include pre-settlement landscapes and vegetation. One species that requires these undisturbed conditions is a rare wildflower of such extreme delicate beauty that at first glance it is difficult not to gasp at the sight of its tiny white pouch.
The small white lady’s slipper, threatened in the state of Michigan, is one of only six species of slipper orchids that grows in the Great Lakes states. Although not the rarest, it is certainly uncommon, especially given its distribution mainly to the southern part of our state.
This lady’s slipper is selective in its habitat, and is especially intolerant of shade and the invasion of shrubs and trees into its surroundings, demanding full sunlight and open landscapes. It is particularly fond of marly fens and wet prairies preferring alkaline or even acidic soils.
To reproduce, the plant gives off millions of seeds as fine as dust to float through the air. But in order for the seed to germinate, an extraordinary relationship must be formed between the nearly microscopic seed and a mycorrhizal fungus. This unique relationship that forms between the fungus and the seed, provides a food source for the seed allowing development of the plant to take place. Even more fascinating is the relationship that is formed between seed and fungus remains intact throughout the entire life of the orchid. A rare relationship indeed!
Normally, this orchid would be just now beginning to bloom, but with the unusual winter and early spring, most plants including this one are well ahead of schedule. However, you may wish to take a quiet Sunday stroll through one of the preferred habitats of this orchid, and if you’re lucky you may happen across one of these fragile blooms still hanging on. Just be sure to stick to the boardwalk in order to prevent our clumsy human feet from disturbing this or any other plant in its environment.
Photo Credit: Melanie Foose
Each and every spring, a remarkable event takes place. On the first warm, rainy night of the late winter or early spring, a massive migration occurs – but for a very short time, as few as one or two nights. That first warm, rainy night triggers thousands of our mole salamanders across Michigan to emerge from under the ground and move towards one of the most fascinating and diverse wetlands – vernal pools.
Vernal pools are some of the most productive wetland systems we know of, and are often referred to as “nature’s nurseries.” Entire populations of wildlife depend on these seasonally wet pockets of wetland which are often found in our woodlands. The wildlife that inhabit these fantastic isolated wetlands have evolved to withstand the variable wet-dry cycles of the pools, while also capitalizing on the complete lack of predatory fish. And, so in vernal pools we have fascinating creatures, some of which are known only to these tiny spots of standing water such as fairy shrimp, spotted salamanders and wood frogs. But, many other species are often found in these pools including copepods, spring peepers, dragonflies, damselflies, Blanding’s turtles, fingernail clams, water striders, garter snakes, amphibious snails, clam shrimp, water beetles, water boatmen, water scorpions, and list goes on and on!
So take a walk this weekend in the woods, start walking downhill and I’ll bet you’ll eventually run into a vernal pool. It’ll still have a lot of water in it, so wear your swamp boots, walk to the edge of the pool and look down. It may take a moment, but your eyes will adjust and you will start to see all of the life that this environment depends on. Or, just take a look at these two short videos and you’ll never think about the woods in the same way again!